Adoption and Language Issues: Should our children be bilingual?


This topic came to me through a seminar attendee, and it is a question being posed by more and more families, as the rates of international adoption rise. Children adopted from “abroad” arrive in their new homes speaking a different language, and have a great need to learn their new language quickly, in order to acclimate and partake in their new family and culture. In many cases, these children are considered as, and treated as, bilinguals. But are they in reality bilingual? And more to the point, should they be bilingual?
There are, of course, no easy answers. But there are some areas to consider and some things families can do to smooth the way for their new arrivals.
Firstly, most internationally adopted children are not truly bilingual. If anything, they are transitional bilinguals, who have a first language which very quickly gives way to the new language. This process of language attrition, or loss, is often called “subtractive bilingualism”, which is when one language replaces another. Most literature on bilingualism tends to consider subtractive bilingualism to be a “bad” thing, with the normal goal being “additive bilingualism”, which is adding a new language and maintaining the old language. However, in the case of internationally adopted children, there are very often no resources easily available to help support the child’s first language, and no real communicative necessity, unless the first language is a part of the every day life of the family. It is also known that internationally adopted children tend to “lose” their first language very quickly – even as soon as 3-6 months after arrival in their new home they often have very little expressive language left. It is not known for certain why this process of attrition happens so quickly, but best guesses tend towards the child’s great desire to fit in with their new environment, and possibly also to associated bad feelings about the country of origin or placement pre-adoption. In addition, the usual complete lack of necessity means that the children do not see the point of continuing with their first language.
There are families who attempt to support the first language of their new arrivals, either by finding a “community of practice” or by engaging babysitters or tutors who use the language with the children. This seems to meet with limited success in terms of absolute language maintenance in most cases. However, the message that any support sends to the children about the value of their first language and culture is not to be ignored. Children who arrive in a new country with no language or cultural skills undergo a massive world-shift in a very short time. Having no means to explore and explain and question the process would necessarily be a very isolating experience, especially for older children. Having the opportunity to use their language to communicate with another child, an adult, a teacher, gives them an emotional outlet that they will otherwise be denied. The time frame in which the child chooses to use their first language may be short, but the sense of security and outlet for expression it would provide them could be powerful. So at the least, I would encourage parents to try and find someone that their child can speak with in their first language to help with the transition period, and to ensure that the child knows that their first language and culture have value, even as they transition towards their new language and culture.
With no or little resources to support “bilingualism”, parents of new arrivals can still plan for the best possible transition support. These are some points to consider when making a plan:

1. What do we know about our child’s proficiency in their first language?
Ideally, you need to know how their language development is, in terms of both passive and active language skills, and literacy, if applicable. This will help with support at school – the difference between getting support for a child who has a language delay in their first language and will need intensive support to acquire the new language, and a child who had “limited English (or other) proficiency” who will need different types of learning support.

2. Keep in mind the different types of language proficiency.
BICS (basic interpersonal communicative skills) is the ability to engage in conversation about regular activities and context-dependent speech. Internationally adopted children tend to develop this proficiency very quickly, as they are highly motivated. CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) is the ability to do deeper processing, of the type needed to succeed in school. Comparing, analysing, evaluating, and understanding of conceptual rather than concrete are all underpinned by CALP. This type of proficiency takes much longer than BICS, and in fact can take up to seven years or more to fully develop. During the gap period, when children have reached BICS but not CALP, they are much more likely to be identified as “learning delayed” or needing special educational help, as they will not necessarily perform as well as parents and educators expect, as they seem “fluent” in their new language.

3. What support can we give or arrange for our children while they are still “language learners”?
The answer to this question depends in large part, but not exclusively, on the school chosen. A solid understanding of language development (including BICS and CALP) and a willingness to educate teachers and administrators is a good first step. Knowledge of language development is not widespread across our schools yet, so we need to be the ones to carry the banner for our children. Very often internationally adopted children are grouped with “bilinguals” and offered the same support, but in fact their process is very different to children who maintain their first language at home. Parents can also support learning at home, in a variety of ways. There are some good resources available through the Post-Adoption Learning Center, including courses designed to help older children develop school skills (like the SmartStart Program: Helping an Internationally Adopted Child Develop a Foundation for Learning.
Toolbox II, Ages 5 to 8

Other resources may be available through local centres and organisations, especially where there are larger concentrations of children arriving from the same region.

Whatever resources you choose, and however you do or do not support the first language of your newly arrived child, it is fundamentally important to realise that this journey of learning and acclimation is a marathon and not a sprint. Even though many of these children “seem fine” very quickly and seem to need little support for language or learning, appearances can be deceiving and lack of attention and lack of a support plan in the early years can lead to long-term academic consequences which are much harder to rectify years down the line.

4 thoughts on “Adoption and Language Issues: Should our children be bilingual?

  1. Carlee says:

    There are easy solutions to ensuring you adopted kid remains bilingual:

    1) adopt a kid whose language you speak (my husband is Chinese and I’m fluent in Mandarin — so we adopted a kid from China). This is the “best” option
    2) send your adopted kid to a two-way immersion school (not a “French or whatever language” immersion school but a proper two-way immersion one. The kind where half the class speaks English at home, the other half speaks [other language] at home and all teachers are bilingual)
    3) hire a babysitter/nanny that speaks your newly-adopted kid’s language (so the kid can maintain their mother tongue).

    I speak (unaccented) Mandarin courtesy of a nanny from Shanghai and a two-way immersion school.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Well, in your case I can see that you found some good solutions. People adopt children from all over the world, and not all of those children speak a language that is easily accessed in other countries (as Mandarin is) or available as an option for bilingual schools. Some children arrive with minority languages that make it impossible to find a babysitter who speaks the child’s language. In fact, the family that inspired this post have adopted children who speak a dialect from Africa, and they do not have any of the options available to you. It’s great that you speak a language that is easily accessible, and you could use many available resources to help your child sustain their first language, but this is not the reality for many adoptive families.

  2. Silvia says:

    I’d like to ask a question. Me and my husband are thinking about adoption, still not sure if international or domestic. I’m Italian though, so I’d like to have bilingual children (italian/english) so that they can speak to their grandparents, cousins and italian relatives…. Would it be a problem to speak them 2 different languages (I read that every parent should speak its own language to the child) if they are toddlers adopted internationally? I realize it’s a stupid question with all the problems about adoption, but it’s quite important to me that our children will be able to speak italian considering they’ll also have double citizenship.

    • eacrisfield says:

      It would be fine for you to raise adopted children with both Italian and English. I wrote a recent post on issues to do with adoption and language (older children) that might give you some insight into the first language issue as well. Good luck!


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